A mother reads with her three-year-old daughter at a Head Start program in Boston, Massachusetts, March 5, 2013

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January 3, 2018

High-Quality Early Childhood Programs Can Change Lives

A mother reads with her three-year-old daughter at a Head Start program in Boston, Massachusetts, March 5, 2013

Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

The evidence has been mounting for decades: Programs that help children learn and grow in their earliest years can change the trajectories of their lives.

That's especially important for children in disadvantaged families who often face obstacles to success from the day they are born. Done well, programs like home visiting and early childhood education can offer them a better shot at a better life.

RAND researchers were among the first to demonstrate the enormous potential of early childhood interventions in the 1990s. A new report compiled research on 115 programs—and found that 102 made a clear and positive difference in young lives.

“The bottom line is this: All the different ways that we examined this issue pointed to the same conclusion,” said M. Rebecca Kilburn, a senior economist at RAND and a coauthor of the study. “What's exciting about this is that we're getting to the point where policymakers have a lot of evidence that well-implemented early childhood programs are a good investment.”

Hope for the Hard-Pressed

San Felipe Pueblo is a bend in the road about 25 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a scattering of homes on the banks of the Rio Grande. It's an old Native American farming village, known for its annual corn dance, where bread baking in traditional backyard ovens sweetens the air. Its 3,500 residents still grow up speaking the indigenous Keresan language.

It has fought hard to preserve its traditions in the face of poverty and economic isolation. Like disadvantaged communities from inner-city Detroit to rural New York, it has focused especially on raising up its youngest generation. It has a small team of family health educators, drawn from the pueblo itself, who visit new mothers in their homes and offer them support and guidance in their own language. The program's name, Project KEVA, stands for Katishtya Eh-wahs Valued Always in Keresan: San Felipe Kids Are Valued Always. Its symbol is a butterfly.

Social and economic disparities can leave a mark long before grade school.

“Every client that comes in faces a lot of struggles and a lot of hardship within their lives,” said Shawna Trancosa, one of the home visitors. “We chose the butterfly because we have the potential, we have the experience, to help them change and do better for themselves and their children.”

For San Felipe and hundreds of other communities across America, that focus on early childhood is hope for the future. It's also a recognition that social and economic disparities can leave a mark long before grade school.

Getting Ahead of the Curve

By the time children turn five, they have already experienced the greatest developmental period in their lives. If they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, too many of them have also already started to fall behind. One study found that children of working professionals heard 30 million more words by age 3 than children whose parents were not so well-off.

The United States spends much less on early childhood education, as a share of its economy, than other wealthy nations.

Yet the United States spends much less on early childhood education, as a share of its economy, than other wealthy nations. About two-thirds of American four-year-olds attend preschool or other early education programs. Among 36 of the world's most developed nations, only Switzerland, Greece, and Turkey have lower rates.

A small team of RAND researchers has been studying early childhood education, home visiting programs, and other childhood interventions for nearly 20 years. Its first report, published in 1998, helped change the conversation around early childhood programs by showing that they could make a real and lasting difference. The researchers followed that up in 2005 with a report looking at 20 programs and again finding clear evidence of positive change for the children enrolled.

Their latest report, released in November, expanded that to 115 programs, all of which had undergone rigorous evaluations. The programs ranged from parenting classes to pre-kindergarten to the home visiting curriculum used in San Felipe Pueblo. The study, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sought to answer two questions: Do the programs work, and are they worth the investment?

Yes, and yes, the researchers concluded.

Evidence Shows Programs Yield Positive Results

By their most basic measure, 102 of the 115 programs improved at least one outcome for children beyond a statistical doubt. That was an 89 percent success rate.

But assessments of early childhood programs tend to take a kitchen-sink approach. Does the program improve behaviors? What about test scores? Are the children happier? Healthier? More focused? How are their body mass indexes?

When the RAND team looked at every child outcome in every study of the 115 programs—more than 3,000 measured outcomes in all—they found that 29 percent showed convincing evidence of improvement. Most of the rest were what statisticians call “null,” meaning there wasn't enough evidence to say one way or the other. That's a winning percentage given the sheer range of outcomes measured, the researchers said—about six times higher than random chance alone.

“It doesn't mean that everything will turn to gold,” said study lead author Jill Cannon, a senior policy researcher at RAND. “But the evidence base is only growing stronger that if you're a policymaker and you invest in these early childhood programs, it's likely to pay off.”

Returns of $2 to $4 were typical for every dollar invested in early childhood programs.

In fact, the researchers found that returns of $2 to $4 were typical for every dollar invested in early childhood programs. That number, though, comes with an asterisk. Very few of the programs had gone through a formal cost-benefit analysis, and even those that did struggled to pin dollar values on social benefits like school readiness or emotional development.

Critics of government-funded preschool programs often point to a phenomenon known as fadeout. Some studies have found higher test scores among children in pre-K programs—but have also found those advantages fade to nothing as the children move into grade school and other students catch up. But the RAND study, like others, found that the economic and social benefits continue to pay dividends, sometimes well into adulthood. “It's not all about test scores,” said study coauthor and senior economist Lynn Karoly.

Children from a Virginia Head Start program enjoy a day of fun activities at a state park near their school

Children from a Virginia Head Start program enjoy a day of fun activities at a state park near their school.

Photo by Virginia State Parks/CC BY 2.0

The researchers noted that their study does have a few limitations. Many of the programs they looked at were small-scale demonstration projects, serving a few hundred children at most. That can raise questions about whether the results would be as strong in scaled-up programs serving more children. Some also were too expensive and intensive to work in many communities; total costs ranged from $150 for a brief parent-education class to nearly $50,000 for a comprehensive, multiyear program of center-based care, education, and home visits.

Nonetheless, the study represents the most comprehensive look to date at the potential benefits of early childhood programs. Policymakers have a menu of good options to choose from when it comes to early childhood interventions, the researchers concluded. But quality counts: “Forty kids and a ball,” as Kilburn put it, is not likely to produce the same kinds of results.

“We have, really, a mountain of evidence now,” Karoly said. “And that gives us confidence that programs that are run well, are high-quality, can return more in benefits than they cost and can make a difference.”

Better Outcomes for Families

Trancosa sees that every day in San Felipe.

She works with 30 new mothers, counseling them on parenting practices, reminding them to get their children vaccinated. She also teaches them about their heritage, preserving a way of life that has guided San Felipe families for generations.

A study last year found that the program improved parenting outcomes, parental involvement, and cultural connections, program managers said. Its curriculum, Family Spirit, has been shown to improve parenting knowledge and child behavior in ways that predict better outcomes for native children, often among the most disadvantaged in the nation.

Shawna Trancosa, one of the family health educators at San Felipe Pueblo, was once a mother in the program

Shawna Trancosa, one of the family health educators at San Felipe Pueblo, was once a mother in the program.

Photo by Eric Draper/Pro Photography Network

In San Felipe, Trancosa has seen it inspire new parents to go back to school to better support their children; has seen teenage mothers respond with cool confidence to a baby's temper tantrum; and has seen whole families, from the grandparents to the children, gather around her flip charts to learn how to help their newest family members succeed.

She sees the benefits of the program most clearly in her own son, B.J., a healthy, happy two-year-old, eager to explore and learn. Before she was a program staffer, Trancosa was a program client, a young mother struggling to make ends meet, who wanted a better life for her baby.

“I had all these questions in mind, and I never had anyone there to answer my questions or even just walk me through my pregnancy,” she says now. “I wanted to strive more and just do more things for my child, to be the best parent I can be. That's what I try to pass on to new mothers.

“The children we have don't come with instructions. How well we take care of them will follow them—and us—through life.”

— Doug Irving